Greek European Culture

Archaeology, History

Colonization vs. colonialism

By Sylvain Rey

Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House

The expansion across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea by the Greeks in the 8th to 6th centuries is a well-known phenomenon, and the Greeks themselves were aware of this (Socrates for example famously compared the Greeks to frogs around a pond). Equally significant, but of a somewhat different nature, was the expansion westward to the Straits of Gibraltar of the Phoenicians, this people so reputed in Antiquity and in our own days as expert sailors and merchants.

This movement of both Greeks and Phoenicians has been refered to as ‘colonization,’ resulting in the establishment of cities in foreign territories-Cadiz in Spain for the Phoenicians, Massalia in France, Byzantium at the mouth of the Black Sea by the Greeks, etc.) Although some historians would not call these movements with the generic term of ‘colonization,’ partly due to the influence of post-modern scholarship which focuses on the particular, this term remains useful and generally acceptable.

The main difference between Greek colonization and Phoenician colonization is shown on the map above: more specifically, Phoenician colonization of the Western Mediterranean had for main object trade, which wasn’t so much the case for the Greeks. However, these two together colonized virtually the entire Mediterranean sea and the Black sea, and opened up an international trade that would eventually be fully unified under the Roman empire. Also, the spread of the Greeks and the Phoenicians has enabled Greek and Phoenician material culture–and also non-material culture, although this is more difficult to acertain–to spread. For this reason, and especially in the case of the Greeks, as well as the Romans, this ancient colonization movement was regarded in the 19th and early 20th centuries as some sort of predecessor to the wave of colonialism that characterized modern Europe.

The European view of colonialism is best summarized by Victor Hugo:

Speaking of civilization, seniority is not a right, it is a duty. This duty, in truth, gives right, including the right to colonization. Savage nations have a right to civilization, as children have a right to education, and the civilized nation owe them this debt. To pay one’s own debt is a duty, as it is a right. Hence in ancient times the right of India over Egypt, of Egypt over Greece, of Greece over Italy, of Italy over Gaul. Hence, in our own days, the right of England over Asia, and of France over Africa.

As we see from Hugo, colonization in modern times involved more than just commerce–which was also one of its justifications; it also involves a certain ideological aspect: its–apparent at least–selfless mission of bringing others to higher standards. Here lies the main difference between ancient and modern colonization: this ideological aspect is altogether absent from the ancient mind.

Trade was the main cause of the Phoenician expansion across the Mediterranean sea. We know that they entertained friendly relations with the rulers of the Hiberian peninsula, where they traded handicraft goods for precious metals. Things are more complex when it comes to the Greeks. The decree found at Cyrene (Libya) mentions that a son of each family of Thera was designated to leave the mother island and to found a new city. Perhaps more interstingly, the document also mentions severe punishments for those designated who would refuse to go. This document enlightens us as to the nature of much of Greek colonization: it was an act of desperation, driven most likely by natural calamities, an unwanted act in many cases. It is perhaps revealing that the Greeks called their ‘colonies’ by the name of ‘apoikia,’ lit. ‘home away.’


  1. emma g

    Hugo’s concepts are merely a perspective – Who’s truth and knowledge is right? – This is a European concept that in my opinion does not justify colonalism. It justifies inhumane acts of humanity that also justifies christianity. There are also other histories and teachings from the indigenous world view that have yet to be shared. We were not mere savages as history proclaims, but human beings – God (Creators) children…

  2. Indeed, and this is why I quoted it: it best summarizes the European rationale for colonialism, which doesn’t mean that he was correct of course. The fact that the Europeans could use Christianity to justify colonialism shows all too well that it had ceased being a faith, but a mere cultural component, a component which could eventually be discarded because not even any longer necessary. And in the process we had to invent the Other’s inhumanity in order to satisfy our own inhumanity–for production, consumption, etc. It is all of us who have ceased being children of God.